When Our Thoughts And Prayers Are Not Enough: School Shootings In America


What do we owe our fellow humans who we walk alongside every day?

Buddhism teaches being in harmony with all things and all people. The Abrahamic religions’ theologies, though explicitly different in details, would agree that kindness to the stranger is important.

Christian theology in particular puts forth that we owe each other agape love. At its heart, agape is a divine kind of love – a love about sacrifice. In a lay sense, I often tell people it’s the sort of love where you help anyone who meets you with a need; your feelings toward them are irrelevant.

The great political thinkers of the Enlightenment – Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau – believed in the social contract. That people have a right to life, liberty, and property. Many ancient traditions from the African kingdoms to the Latin American empires emphasized unity and community.

Ubuntuthe Southern African philosophy made widely known by Nelson Mandela comes to mind. The word roughly translates from Zulu to English as “human kindness.” But the cultural philosophy it emphasizes is this: A person is a person through other people.

But we know that humans are imperfect. So despite all these religious precepts, political theories, and cultural philosophies, at the very least, at the very base level of humanity, we expect that the stranger will be benevolently ignorant. This means that we are not always helped by others when we are in need. But it also means we do not intentionally seek to harm others.

Human beings fail at the most basic expectation of each other. We harm those who walk alongside us. We take away their most fundamental right: The right to life.

Yet another school shooting happened in the United States yesterday. This time in Oregon’s Umpqua Community College. Ten people, including the gunman, are dead. The current reports say Christians were targeted. The usual conversations ensue: Conversations about gun control and the Second Amendment. And of course the rhetoric that follows it – “We need more guns!” A visibly frustrated President Obama discussed how these acts of violence have become routine in this country, in this culture. The president made it clear: “Our thoughts and prayers are not enough.”

It is easy, I think, to become desensitized to the violence that goes on in the world. It is easy to look at all the human suffering and feel overwhelmed to the point that one prefers to just live life wanting to be unaware of it all. It is easy to turn on the news, read hashtags, and participate in hashtags, and for a moment be grateful for one’s life. And then of course go back to one’s life as you were. Until the next shooting. Until the next media event of violence. Until the next thing.

School shootings in the United States are their own specific monster. We say cities names and horrific events come to mind. We talk about mental illnesses and the lacking support systems and health systems. We talk about guns and laws that don’t make sense. We talk about safety and policies that ought to be created. We talk and talk and talk and it becomes nothing more than expressions of hot air, pointless winds, and clanging sounds. It’s all noise.

Then we wish the families of the dead well. We tell them to take heart. We tell them that this is a mere accident of evil, of which humans are always prone to being victims. We send thoughts and prayers and indeed we think and we pray.

The cultural, political, and religious philosophies that influence human interactions are not without instruction. That is to say, it is not enough to believe these philosophies – one actually has to act upon them.

What good is it for a people to hold life and liberty in high esteem if the laws and manner of that society do not reflect the protection of lives or assist the individual in self-determination? What good are our thoughts and prayers if they do not lead to action? Indeed to borrow from Christian theology – faith without works is dead.

I do not pretend to have all the answers to socio-political problems that come together in any event at one time. I am not an expert on the law or on guns or on mental health. I am simply a concerned person who thinks and prays often enough to put it simply: When it comes to America’s school shootings, I reiterate the words of the president – our thoughts and prayers are not enough; we have to get to work.

We owe our fellow humans who we walk alongside every day a world where their life is not at my mercy or yours.